A builder who became a chef just eight weeks ago has won his way to the finals of a major cookery competition.
Gabriel Florea’s meteoric rise has taken him by surprise - and amazed and delighted fellow chefs.
Gabriel brought his young family from Romania 18 months ago to make his home in Crawley.
He joined the Sofitel hotel at Gatwick Airport’s north terminal as a kitchen porter, as well as starting a catering course and Central Sussex College.
But after just eight weeks head chef David Woods spotted Gabriel’s emerging skills and promoted him to commis chef.
Now he has cooked his way to the finals of the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or Apprentice competition.
“I couldn’t believe it when the judges looked at my dish and said it was perfect for presentation and taste and I was told I was going through to the final,” he said.
The 34-year-old was one of just six successful student chefs who made it through the national heats by cooking his signature dish of chicken and herb roulade on spinach and coconut puree with a spicy gravy.
Gabriel’s boss David Woods said: “Gabriel is confident, eager to learn and not fazed under pressure.
“But to go from kitchen porter to finalist in a national competition within just two months is unbelievable - he is definitely a chef to watch out for.”
In his home country, Gabriel worked in construction and says he can build a house from start to finish, but since working at the Sofitel his aspirations have changed tack.
“The team of chefs here are my inspiration and now they have given me the chance to be a chef, I would like to have my own restaurant within 10 years’ tops,” he said.
For now, he is focusing on the Toque d’Or grand final which takes place in London on March 21-23 although admits to being far more nervous cooking dishes under the watchful gaze of his Sofitel mentors, David Woods and senior sous chef, Shaun Van Den Bergh, than he was during the competition.
He said about his winning dish: “I wanted the dish to reflect the green of my new country and my love of spice. Chicken is a staple ingredient in Romania so I felt that should be a key part of the dish. I served it with crispy chicken skin, potato rosti and edible flowers.”